Spark plugs, a comic book and a smoke bomb

Rural Tales Photo -- NGK_Laser Iridium_Spark Plug_SThe ad in my 1977 comic book promised a smoke bomb that would deliver “surprise as smoke pours from under the hood.” At 13 years old, I thought I knew a lot about cars. My sister would soon pay the price for both misconceptions.

It had been three years since my last ill-conceived prank involving a vehicle. That one hadn’t ended well either. Crab apples littering the ground in woods along the country road, a lone, old pickup driving slowly by, and a dare that I couldn’t hit it helped me learn just how fast an angry adult can chase you down when you mess with their vehicle.

The smoke bomb arrived in the mail, addressed to me and discreetly packaged, as promised. At five inches long, it looked a little like a thin cigar and was wrapped in red, white, and blue paper with two copper wires protruding from the end. The instructions were simple – attach the wires to the vehicle’s spark plugs and watch as panic overtakes the driver when smoke pours from the engine compartment at start up.

I knew how to change spark plugs, or so I thought, so installing the smoke bomb on my sister’s 1974 Ford LTD Country Squire Station Wagon was a snap. When it was time for her to leave for work, I hid in the pine trees, barely able to contain my excitement as I watched the door close and heard the engine start. This was it! Smoke would soon pour from the engine compartment. She’s putting the car in reverse. She’s backing down the driveway. She shifts to drive. Uh-oh. There she goes. No smoke. No one screaming “the car’s on fire!” Nothing, except a letdown, and regret that I didn’t order the “keep on trucking” t-shirt with the big red tongue instead of a stupid smoke bomb that didn’t work. What could possibly have gone wrong?

I removed the smoke bomb from her car the next afternoon and tossed it into my dresser drawer along with other discarded treasures. Little did I know, the fun was just starting. See, I had no idea that it actually mattered which spark plugs were connected to which wires. In the course of installing and removing the smoke bomb, I’m sure I had removed all eight wires and reconnected them in no particular order – something my sister found out later that day, sitting on the side of the road, wondering why the car was running so poorly.

Luckily, she actually knew something about cars, unlike me, and figured out that the plug wires were connected wrong. She fixed them and was on her way. When she came home she asked me about it I confessed to the whole scheme, in part to prevent her from telling my dad and seeing smoke pour from under his lid! That’s when she gave me an education about how to change spark plugs, and that spark plugs, wires and cylinders had to be connected to the proper distributor terminal.

I decided then and there that it would be the end of my car capers—a declaration helped by the impending arrival of Sea Monkeys and Mexican Jumping Beans on yet another order from the back of the comic book.

Now that I know how to replace spark plugs, and that the different types of spark plug metal—such as copper, iridium, and platinum—actually matter, I always think about the smoke bomb that wasn’t…whenever I’m showing someone else how to replace spark plugs.

Editor’s note: Put the comic book down and head on over to Advance Auto Parts for all the best in spark plugs, batteries, brakes and more. Buy online, pick up in store.Gag gifts

 

Spark Plugs 101

Advance Auto PartsA lot of people come to me for car advice, and here’s one thing I’ve noticed: everyone thinks they know about spark plugs, but almost no one really does. So I decided to make this column all about spark plugs, because trust me, your engine relies on them every day–which means you do, too. That’s why I want you to get familiar with these little buggers. Let’s dive right in with a little Q&A.

What do spark plugs do?

Here’s a fun fact about your engine: unless you’re driving an electric car, in which case this article definitely isn’t for you, you’ve got what’s known as an ICE, which stands for “internal combustion engine.” Now, combustion requires a spark, doesn’t it. See where I’m going with this? Spark plugs are a crucial part of your engine because they’re what makes that combustion happen, both at ignition and while the engine moves through each combustion cycle during operation. When the plugs aren’t doing their job, your engine’s not getting the full combustion benefit, so everything from acceleration and fuel economy to engine smoothness is going to be negatively affected.

How do I know when to replace spark plugs?

My rule of thumb is that if something seems funny about your engine, you should check the spark plugs first. If you’re a hands-off kind of car owner, of course, you’ll just take it to your mechanic and get it diagnosed. But if you want to inspect the plugs yourself, it’s a pretty easy job. Check your owner’s manual to find out where the plugs are located, and then pop the hood and have a look. If the plugs appear dirty, that could mean you’ve got an oil leak or excessive carbon deposits–and if they look damaged, your engine might be running too hot or misfiring.

Keep in mind, though, that even if they look fine, they might be past their prime. Consult your owner’s manual for when to replace spark plugs, too, and if you think you’re past due, I’d recommend replacing them, just to be safe.

Can I replace my own spark plugs?

Now, I said you could check them, but I didn’t say you should try to replace them! Truth is, for a seasoned backyard mechanic, popping the old plugs out and putting new ones in is pretty straightforward. But if you haven’t done it before, you should probably have someone like me looking over your shoulder the first time through. I know the internet’s full of DIY guides on how to change spark plugs, but there’s some serious wrenching going on here–literally. You need a socket wrench, and you may need a specific spark-plug socket and other accessories as well. Plus, there’s a fairly advanced technique called “gapping” that may or may not be required, depending on your vehicle’s age and other factors.

Promise me this: if you do try one of those tutorials on how to change spark plugs, please, wait for the engine to cool off first. I’m talking four hours, minimum. Those plugs are responsible for combustion, remember? Better safe than scalded!

What about cleaning spark plugs?

Here’s where I differ from a lot of DIY-ers. You’ll find various folk remedies for cleaning spark plugs, but for peace of mind, I say just swap ‘em out if they’re that dirty. Because how much money are you really saving, right? Twenty bucks? Fifty? Spark plugs are a car owner’s dream, really, because they’re that rare important engine part that’s also inexpensive. If it’s my car, I believe my engine’s worth that kind of investment, every day of the week. Give it the shiny new plugs it deserves.

What do you think?

I’ve seen a few spark plugs in my day, but I’ll be the first to admit, this article isn’t the last word on the subject. Got anything to contribute? See things differently? Chime in with a comment, and help me and everyone else here understand where you’re coming from.

 

Editor’s note: For more info on these DIY essentials, check out the Resources & Video section at Advance Auto Parts.